Clear and Present Danger
Trans World Features (TWF) | 20 Apr 2014
Clear and Present Danger
Turtles are falling victims to shrimp trawling in Tamil Nadu in the absence of use of turtle excluder devices. TWF correspondents Deepshikha Hooda and Sunil Chandramouli report from ground zero

The marine exporting industry in India is a thriving one. In 2011-12, the value of the exported products touched an unprecedented US$3.5 billion. This is an increase of over 300% since the turn of the century. This growth is recorded despite the political scenario in one of the major export markets from India (the Middle East) and the financial crisis happening in several of India's largest customers (the EU and the USA). Obviously, the business is lucrative all over India, and Tamil Nadu is no exception.


Gunadasan Mannivannan, Deputy Director at the Fishermen Boat Owners Association, Chennai, explains how exported shrimp can come from two sources. One is shrimp farming, where they are bred in ponds, the other source is ‘wild catch’ caught from the sea. He states a vast majority of fishermen who own trawlers, fish for shrimp off the Chennai coastline.


When asked if the fishermen use turtle friendly technology like the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) while fishing for shrimp, Mannivannan is lost for an answer.


While the shrimp industry is thriving and brings affluence to the region, it comes with a price. An alarming number of turtle carcasses are lining ashore the Chennai coastline. TED is a technology that ensures, that as trawlers raid the ocean for ‘wild catch’ shrimp, their nests don’t catch the unwitting turtles swimming in the sea.


The state of Orissa serves as the biggest nesting site for the Olive Ridley turtles in Asia. With the onus to protect turtles from a painful death, the state of Orissa included TED in the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act and within a decade turtle mortality was reduced. Soon after, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal followed suit, making TED mandatory.


However, the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act remains without the inclusion or even the mention of TED.  While the state government claims that it is making efforts to enforce TED, the situation on ground is far different.


Fishermen in Royapuram, a fishing harbour in the north of Chennai, claim they have never received any free turtle excluder devices, nor have they been introduced to any awareness programmes. "I know what TED is because I am a little educated. I can assure you that none of my fellow fishermen know anything about it”, says Mannivannan. Many bodies erected by the state to raise awareness among fishermen only claim to do so, he reiterates.


According to Public Law, the United States requires use of TED when importing shrimp. The process words like this: exporters acquire marine products from fishermen and then submit the products to several government agencies, like the Export Inspection Council and the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), for quality evaluation purposes. These agencies examine if the exporter is authorised to export to the United States. If he is, then the United States Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) hands over a DS-2031 form, which the MPEDA certifies, authorising export. These approvals declare that fishermen use TED. "If you don't use TED and still want to export, you will have a certificate to say that it is used while trawling for shrimp,” said an official at MPEDA.


India Roberts, who is employed at the Office of Marine Conservation of the Department of State in Washington D.C., in the United States, said she was "not aware" of any such practices occurring and said she will look into it.


An official at the Department of Fisheries at Neelankarai, Chennai said, "Importers and exporters are only interested in business. Tell me, who cares about what the imported country requires. If an inspection body intervenes, India has the certificates to prove it.”


When the Turtle Excluder device first came to India, the loss of by-catch from the turtle opening discouraged fisher folk. Dr. Boopendranath, Principal Scientist at the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) in Cochin, explains, "Indian fishermen do not engage in exclusive shrimp trawling. If that were the case, then TED would have been adopted more widely. The problem is, they trawl for anything, called ‘bottom trawling’, and actually prefer more by-catch along with the shrimp, which would otherwise not be there if they used TED”. Scientists at CIFT, after several trial sessions and field visits gave birth to the indigenised TED, more suited to Indian waters. The CIFT-TED device can be fixed using local materials and can be assembled for a price of 2500 rupees or less. So far the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology has distributed 2900 free TEDs all over India


Tamil Nadu has not made the usage of TED compulsory. When questioned about the delay, Assistant Director for Fisheries, Rachel, said there were a lot of politics involved, though the Tamil Nadu Government was considering


Politics has also played with the implementation of TED as the fishermen form a strong 'Vote Bank', and any move to displease this group will not fall nicely with the government in power.


Rajdeep Mukherjee, at the Bay of Bengal Program Centre, which works for providing sustainable fishing practices, maintains a neutral stance. "I am pro conservation, but only if it does not come in the way of sustainable livelihood. Tamil Nadu witnesses great strength among its fishing community, bringing TED here will not be an easy task."


Director of Exports at BRM Exports, Seetharaman, said that he knows of a few "unscrupulous" exporters who procure shrimp from fishermen who don't use TED. “It's not illegal, but to me it seems wrong.” His organisation gets shrimp from farms around Chennai. Dhasnevis Fernando, of Victoria Biotech, echoes the sentiment. "I rarely even export. While selling domestically I make sure I get products from fishermen who I know are experienced and won't use the wrong practices to get fish.”


The scale of TED's non-implementation is disputable. However, it's apparent that the authorities need to act in the form of legislation in order to protect turtles and make the thriving shrimp business more efficient. Today, India is among the few to indigenise TED technology to suit territorial waters. Unfortunately the benefits of the CIFT- TED are yet to reach Tamil Nadu, which is home to Olive Ridley turtles for five months in a year. The Non-Governmental Organisations are certainly sharing their burden of rectifying turtle mortality in the state; it’s high time the Government does the same.


"The fisheries department gives two hoots about protecting turtles,” says Arun Nanna, a senior member of the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN). With no legislation and dead turtles lining on the shore, NGOs seem alone in their quest to save turtles. The ‘turtle walks’ held by the organisation involve hunting of eggs on the coast and once found, securing them in the hatcheries.


The Trust for Environment Education (TREE) Foundation is another autonomous body that works to conserve sea life. “Turtles are left at the mercy of trawlers who often chop their flippers beating their heads and hacking them to death, when found entangled in the Trawl nets,” says Suprajaa Dharini from the foundation.


It is clear that the problem is multi-faceted and has to be tackled at all levels. Therefore, the most effective solution to this far-reaching problem would be to make TED mandatory in the state law while simultaneously raising awareness amongst fishermen using the assistance of NGOs.


 Image:   A dead turtle from shrimp trawling in the beach 

                Tamil Nadu coast